Issue 1 I February 2010
The Oxford Left Review
]eremy Cliff e
Equality and Republican Ideals
Voter Reform and the Left
An End to Labourism
Call to Scottish Labour
The Putney Debates
A Lourth Way for Labour?
Germany's Lragmented Left
The Return of Keynes
Time for a Tobin Tax
The Science of Copenhagen
COP15 - Activist's Perspective
Today's Lost Generation
The science of Copenhagen
I n the last few months the media reported intensively on the Copenhagen summit
on climate change, corresponding to the intense civil-society attention given to
it over the whole of 2009. This briefing sets out (from the limited vantage point of
its author) the science underlying the negotiations at COP15, and an assessment of
its outcome. It concludes that despite the generally disappointing and despondent
tone after the summit, there are a few signs of hope for the persistent campaigners.
The first half of December 2009 saw the Copenhagen summit on climate change. Of-
ficially, this was the 15th session of the Conference of Parties (COP15) 1 to the United
Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 2 , a process which
started in 1992. An earlier UNFCCC attempt to coordinate the worldwide actions
against climate change on an intergovernmental level was the Kyoto Protocol of
1997. COP15 aimed to reach agreement on what is to come after the Kyoto Protocol
expires in 2012. Because its high profile attracted the attendance of many heads of
governments, COP15 was often reported in the media as the Copenhagen summit.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 3 is a group of scientists set
up by the governments to advise on the science of climate change. Reading the lat-
est assessment report of 2007 from the IPCC, augmented with other trusted sources
for updates, I understand that to limit the most dangerous effects of climate change
(such as large sea-level rise and more-intense extreme weather events), the global
average temperature rise needs to be limited to within 2°C from pre-industrial lev-
els. This in turn requires controlling the concentration of greenhouse gases in the
atmosphere to within 350 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent (at the mo-
ment it is a bit above 380 ppm). These numbers we cannot directly control. What we
can control are the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. These
we can reduce, mainly by cutting down the use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural
gas), but also by other methods of mitigation, such as slowing down deforestation.
In the UNFCCC, the governments of the world, taking into account the world history
of industrialization and differing levels of development, recognized that all countries
have ''common but differentiated responsibilities" in facing the challenge of climate
change. From this, the expectation is for rich countries to cut emissions more drastical-
ly than poorer countries. Also, financial help would be available to help poor countries
leapfrog over carbon-intensive modes of development. Finally, vulnerable countries
already seeing effects of climate change (such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, and Bangladesh,
now losing land to the rising sea) would have funding to adapt to the new situation.
Most participants entered Copenhagen hoping for an ambitious, fair, and legally-
binding agreement to come out of COP15. This never happened. The European
Union offered to increase its emissions cut from 20 % to 30 % by 2020 from 1990
levels if a deal could be reached, but appeared to have held this card high up its
sleeve. Perhaps the United States of America offered too many billions of dol-
lars but too little a cut (only 4 % by 2020 on 1990 baseline; the numbers sounded
bigger with baseline massaged). Perhaps vulnerable countries like the Maldives
overplayed their hands by demanding that 1.5°C rather than 2°C be the target.
China definitely drove a hard bargain. Denmark was not the best moderator, and
excluded civil-society groups from the discussion halfway through the confer-
ence. But finger-pointing aside, the outcome was that there was no legally-bind-
ing deal. Instead there was a political agreement, the Copenhagen Accord; and
the world is left to try again at COP16 in Mexico, November /December 2010.
What next? There is no deal at Copenhagen, so any emissions cuts will have to
be unilateral for the moment. Appendix I of the Copenhagen Accord invites each
nation to enter its emissions cut target for 2020. The deadline to fill out this form
was 31 January 2010. During COP15, the Maldives and Costa Rica offered 100
% cuts: they aim to be zero-emissions countries by the end of the decade. Clos-
er to home, on one (devolved) hand we have Scotland committing itself to a le-
gally-binding 42 % cut by 20 20 4 ; on the other (supranational) hand, the Europe-
an Union takes the absence of a global pact as an excuse to retreat to a feeble 20
% cut by 2020. The UK- wide Climate Change Act 2008 provides for a target of
80 % cut by 2050 in section 1(1); the interim target for 2020 is yet to be decided.
Since the end of the Copenhagen summit, I have written to climate and energy minis-
ter Ed Miliband, asking him to write down "40 % cut by 2020, with no overseas carbon
offsets" next to Britain's name, and to ask other EU countries to do the same. I have
also written similarly to my MP, my Members of the European Parliament, and some
peers in the House of Lords. I thought I was alone when presenter Stephen Sackur of
BBC Radio 4's Listeners Look Ahead dismissed my suggestion as politically unlikely.
I was wrong. A week later. Lord (Anthony) Giddens replied: "those of us con-
cerned with climate change are working hard to influence the government in
the direction you mention for the proposals they will enter for the end of Janu-
ary in the follow up to Copenhagen." Another week thereafter. Stop Climate
Chaos Coalition started a Twitter petition addressed to the Prime Minister with
this same aim. 5 Commitments now to ambitious unilateral cuts offer us the best
hope for a legally-binding agreement in Mexico by the end of the year. Remember,
this is about the survival of the human species. Thus we might keep hope alive.
Dr Kaihsu Tai is a member of Saint Cross College. He recently started studying European
Law a fter a decade of research in Biochemisiry.
4 Section 2(1) Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009
The Oxford Left Review is the journal of Compass Oxford.
Compass Oxford is the campus group of the think-tank Compass active
within Oxford University.